Friday, November 27, 2009

Broken Words, Empty Promises

We are all taught to be careful when bidding on items listed on ebay. Site guidelines caution you to review a seller's feedback ratings and to consider bidding only on those auctions which are offered by seller's who have a sterling reputation. Ebay can be a means for deceitful individuals to defraud innocent buyers, whether through malice with intent, or as a result of an accident. Thus exists the maxim caveat emptor, 'let the buyer beware.'

Ebay employs a feedback system as a means of attempting to ensure that transactions betwixt buyers and sellers proceed smoothly. Apparently, the fee structure attached to listings is more costly as one's ratings deteriorate, so an incentive to provide good "customer service" is there to motivate the seller. It is the obligation of the buyer to inspect the property received and post a fair and accurate assessment of their satisfaction with the transaction.

This process, for the most part, functions well and promotes a friendly, mercantile environment well-suited to the small entrepreneur for marketing their goods and obtaining the best possible sales price. Ebay exists at the pinnacle of exchange, it is America's garage sale, open not just on weekends, but 24/7. If you want to find just about anything, all you need do is type your request in the search field and "voila," you have instant access to all types of things you never knew you desired.

Ebay is promoted as a safe environment to conduct transactions, offering a vast array of goods obtainable at prices determined only by interested bidders. At times, items with few bidders can prove to be a bargain for the highest bidder, eliciting a gasp of delight as they gloat "Ha! I won it for that much?" At other times ego intrudes, emotions run high, and two or more bidders will bid items to lofty, unwarranted heights that can only result in wallet surgery.

But what happens when things go awry? Well, then there's always SquareTrade, an arbitration protocol for mediating disputes between parties and, as well, there's buyer protection offered through Paypal, the now-mandatory payment system. Even then, things can go wrong. I know, it happened to me.

I received a box from a seller that I noticed - while still at the post office - was suspiciously light. But I didn't inspect it closely as it was only one package amidst a dozen. I got home to discover later that the box was empty, re-bound with clear adhesive tape from the post office and a red message stamped on the exterior stating that it had been received in empty condition and been resealed.

There was no packing slip and no return address, so although the package was mailed from Coulton, Florida, I couldn't immediately determine what the contents had been. I had ordered perhaps three to four hundred packages in this time frame, so I was forced to laboriously inventory all of them before I could ascertain that the missing item was five bids of rolls of silver coins purchased from Coinsatheart on July 28, 2009. I had paid $297 for a cardboard box!

By now, maybe forty days had passed, and according to ebay rules you must post feedback within sixty days. When I would look down the column of items that I had not yet left feedback for, there those five items were, with a small note highlighted beneath warning not to miss the deadline to submit the case for arbitration if a problem existed.

There was no problem, yet, at least not as far as I was concerned. The box had been insured, so we merely had to file a claim with the USPS and all would be fine. So, after several emails with Hollis, the seller, the sixty-day period was drawing to a close. I called ebay and explained that I didn't want to post negative feedback on this seller, because to my knowledge he was acting with good intent in having filed the insurance claim; I was just awaiting a refund.

It was at this point I noticed the first waft of stench from the sewage factory had despoiled the beautiful Fall weather. Ebay informed me that I couldn't open up a case because it was too late. I asked them about Paypal's buyer protection plan and they stated you had to file within 45 days. "But what about the feedback deadline," I retorted, "why would you allow 60 days for one system but limit complaints to only 45 days with the other?"

"That's just the way it is," stated the voice on the phone, "it changed about two months ago." But you didn't notify ebay users of the change before it happened," I exclaimed, " how are we supposed to know there are time limits to filing a claim for arbitration?" The voice on the phone stated "we have no obligation to inform users, you need to read the terms of agreement, it's all covered in there."

So here's the situation as it now stands. Two days prior to the expiration of the sixty day period, Hollis had sent me an email stating that the insurance had been refused, and that he was so frustrated that he would just deal with the post office himself and promised to Paypal me the refund himself. I never heard from him again.

Two weeks later I sent him a scathing letter, not directly accusing him of cheating me but implying that I was prepared to "take all steps necessary to secure my refund." He finally replied with an abject tale of having lost his job, and that if he could just have a few more days he would Paypal me. Another two weeks, another excuse, and this time I really haven't heard back from him again.

"Well," you might be thinking, "tough break, you learned an expensive lesson." But I'm not going to let this drop so easily. There are a few things left that I can do, even though Hollis is in Coulton, Florida and I'm clear over here in Central California. He probably thinks he is free and clear, and why should he reimburse me when there's nothing I can do? This situation might seem absurd but, potentially, it could happen to you. So here's the steps I've taken and those I will initiate soon.

I filed a report with the Internet Fraud Division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Their site states they will forward the information gathered to the appropriate authorities for eventual prosecution. They needed to know Hollis's last name, for the forms I filled out, but I shall not reveal it here; I have to be careful here to avoid defamatory remarks but everything I've stated is true, I have copies of all his email remarks so I should be safe in that regard.

Next week I will be contacting the police department in his community and filing a loss report, and question them whether his actions constitute fraud. I also plan on contacting the Postmaster General of the USPS in that region to determine if a claim was ever actually filed. I plan on writing a well-detailed report and submitting it to both Paypal and ebay to inform them of events as they transpire.

I've even considered speaking with a representative of the news media, or contacting and submitting a human interest story with an angle of "man sells prized possessions to put food on table, USPS reneges on promise." I mean, what a racket! All these years people have been buying insurance on the items they insure, only to be told by the post office if they make a claim "you're limited to fifteen dollars on that claim."

They say that every once in awhile, you just need to "reach out and touch someone." So, Hollis, consider this a not-so-gentle nudge in the ribs... I want my money back! To be fair, there's two sides to every story, so if you'd care to hear his you could contact him, but again, to provide contact information would be a breach of trust, and in a moment I'll explain why I don't feel comfortable doing that. But I am running this post because I wouldn't want to see another victimized. The present system has faults, your packages are not insured.

Postscript: It took another long month, and the exchange of, at times, acerbic emails, but I was eventually compensated in full. This text has been altered, "to protect the innocent." Hollis is a fictitious name, as are all other forms of identity which allude to the seller.

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